by Barry Edelson
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The Moral Injury


"If you have no wounds, how can you know if you're alive?"

– Edward Albee



Imagine living in a country in which writing poetry is so dangerous that people are imprisoned for it, or worse. This question was posed by Tom Stoppard in an interview many years ago, when the Soviet Union still had nearly all of Eastern Europe, the Caucuses and Central Asia in its grip. The playwright was not actually commiserating with writers trapped by totalitarianism, but bemoaning the relatively low regard in which literature was held in the West. While novelists like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn faced censorship, the gulag, and exile, writers in the "free world" occupied an arm of the entertainment industry, subject to the whims of the market as if they were peddling a commodity of mere utilitarian value. This is not to suggest that we didn't have serious writers in the United States and Western Europe during the Cold War, but the public's appetite for literature of profound social and political consequence is always vanishingly small. Books were read, but didn't matter. By contrast, the crucible of state terror regularly produces art of an intensity and focus that is exceedingly rare in a peaceful country. Moreover, many readers in repressive circumstances risk their lives for books.

Stoppard was implicitly referring to Czechoslovakia, the country of his family's origin, where an unarmed uprising against the Communist dictatorship in 1968 was crushed by Soviet tanks. This bitter failure led another novelist of note, Milan Kundera, into permanent exile, and drove an avant garde playwright, Vaclav Havel, underground for the next two decades, until another popular uprising finally took down the regime and propelled him to the presidency. In those intervening years, art continued to be crushed into submission. How many writers in America ever had to write a book secretly on scraps of toilet paper and smuggle it out of a jail cell, or were forced to make a public denunciation of their own words, or simply couldn't write what they wanted for fear of arrest, torture and death? Other creative artists fared no better: composers, painters and performers of all kinds were subject to the whims of an indiscriminate tyranny, which appropriated the arts as just another weapon in its endless war of propaganda. But uncooperative writers, who slyly challenged the constricted vision imposed by the state, were elevated to a special status as enemies of the people.

The insidious reality of living with a despot's heel on your neck, literally and figuratively, alters everyone's behavior. The power of the state lies not in its ability to confront or intimidate every one of its subjects who is deemed to be a threat, but by making examples of the few in order to terrorize the many. However many secret police and neighborhood snoops they may deploy, the state cannot literally arrest everyone. That is not the method of state terror. The object is to induce citizens to desist voluntarily from expressing dissenting ideas or engaging in "counter-revolutionary" behavior, by demonstrating plainly how certain and cruel the consequences will be for those who do not. When a poet or playwright fails to put pen to paper in the first place, then the police state is functioning as intended. This is despotism at its most invidious: the populace ceases even to think as private individuals, and submits abjectly to the state's most vile dictates. A gun to the head is unnecessary when the people have already muzzled themselves.

And what kind of life does the self-censoring writer have, who is unable to give expression to a ceaseless flow of thoughts, emotions and ideas? How can this not lead to despair and despondency? Escaping the state's unrelenting violence does not relieve the victim of hopelessness, or the inescapable weight of literary ambition carried in one's head with no prospect of a creative outlet. Such an individual suffers from a different kind of wound: a moral injury.


The concept of moral injury was first applied to soldiers. Many veterans suffer long-term psychological trauma from having to commit acts of violence that violate their fundamental sense of right and wrong. No amount of military training or indoctrination about the evil and inhumanity of the enemy is sufficient to override these soldiers' moral convictions. Studies have confirmed that a large percentage of soldiers in combat never even fire a weapon directly at their opponents. They do their best to appear to engage the enemy, to be good soldiers, so as not to invite ostracism or prosecution. But they don't take aim, and otherwise try to avoid killing anyone directly: not out of cowardice, fear or squeamishness, but because their conscience simply will not allow them to do it.

This is true in every war, regardless of the circumstances. Nonetheless, in the unpredictable chaos of the battlefield, even the most determined non-killer can find himself in a situation where self-preservation, or the safety of his comrades, requires him to fire at an enemy soldier. This reluctance to kill is not "pacifism", however one wishes to define that much-maligned term. Even for some who do their duty as trained, and do not consciously question their moral right to use the lethal weapons that have been put into their hands, killing another human being can leave behind moral wounds that may never heal.

This kind of injury is qualitatively different from the post-traumatic stress that we have come to recognize in a wide swath of the veteran community. It does not derive from fear, or from seeing fellow soldiers get shot or blown up, or watching children get killed, or any other horrific scene that can haunt a soldier's dreams for the rest of his life. The moral injury undermines the soldier's belief in his own humanity, in the decency that has been ingrained in him from an early age. The disparity between the church-taught and family-reinforced dictum against violence and murder in civilian life, and the wanton carnage of warfare, is too great for some to reconcile. Being told that it is one's duty, and that the responsibility lies with those in authority who are ordering one to do it, flies in the face of a lifetime of teaching that one bears ultimate responsibility for all of one's actions. You're the one pulling the trigger, and you must answer for it. Though many are able to overcome this dissonance — and others clearly have no such qualms in the first place — they are not all immune from the emotional after-effects of the bloodletting in which they are taking an active part.

There is yet another category of moral injury in war: the damage caused by watching others commit terrible acts of violence. Whether or not one is prepared to take aim and fire at an enemy soldier, being a witness to barbarism committed by others can be traumatizing in itself. Though the concept of moral injury had not been articulated as early as World War I, it was what Somerset Maugham had in mind when he invented the character of Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edge. Upon returning home to America after serving in the war, Darrell feels so deeply ashamed at the brutality of what he saw that he is unable to resume the prosperous, upwardly mobile life he had left behind. He recoils from work and ordinary society and becomes something of a lost soul, earnestly seeking morality and truth in a world that is miserably deficient in both. He is viewed by others, naturally, as a useless misfit, left to nurse his moral injury in self-imposed exile.

Sometimes even noncombatants, watching a war unfold from a safe distance, are stricken by atrocities that others commit, and are consequently shaken to their moral cores by examples of extreme inhumanity. "I can't believe they are doing this" is a common response, and it is literally true: their moral beliefs cannot accommodate wanton cruelty. Much as we all know that the history of mankind is replete with gruesome conflict, and that the world is still rife with all manner of inhumane behavior, witnessing it in real time is another matter entirely. We are morally injured by having to watch the depredations of others, even if the injury is of a lesser severity than that experienced by the soldier who is forced to raise his hand against another. It can still cause grievous moral harm, to ourselves and our society, and we feel responsible for bearing witness.

Or we can look away.


When political leaders, or others in positions of authority, display callous indifference, or worse, towards the most vulnerable among us, we recoil in accordance with an offense against our moral conscience. We experience another variety of moral injury, that which is caused by observing the misdeeds of those in power. We may vote, protest, join movements and complain vehemently, but we are still beleaguered by the mere knowledge that those who are entrusted with their citizens' well-being are in fact unable or unwilling to act in their interest. When anger and argument subside, we become aware that we have in fact suffered a kind of psychological wound, with all of the accompanying effects: discomfort, defenselessness, despair.

We are further perturbed by the failure of many of our fellow citizens to share in our outrage against common decency, or at least what we formerly believed was common decency. We deride and dismiss them: "They don't want to know" or "They only see what they want to see". But in so doing we are imputing conscious motives which, by and large, are beyond the scope of the human animal. They themselves may be experiencing a moral injury of their own, believing that their convictions, dramatically different from ours, have been violated.

Apart from the small percentage of people who are genuine sociopaths, and therefore incapable of empathy, the rest of us are governed by a tangled amalgam of contradictory biases and impulses: self-preservation and generosity, the desire both to gratify ourselves and to please others, a craving for both company and solitude. Whether we are empathetic, indifferent or hostile in a particular instance has less to do with conscious choice than with unconscious patterns. We frequently mistake spontaneous reflex for well-considered judgment. Even if we acknowledge that we are seldom fully aware of our motivations, and all too often ascribe rationales for our attitudes and behaviors only in retrospect, we are rarely so charitable about the motivations of others, especially of those who disagree with us.

Looking away is not necessarily a sign of indifference. Averting our eyes from tragedy competes with a natural desire to know what is happening around us, and to do something about it. But we have varying tolerances for the stench of moral decay: the dissolution of civil discourse, the suffering of innocents, the mistreatment of the downtrodden, the horrors of war, the descent into barbarism. It does no good to declare righteously that we are all responsible, that those who refuse to bear witness to a crime are as guilty as those who commit it. If we find something repellent and unbearable — not merely inexpedient — to look at, then we will not look at it. Revulsion will not be overcome by reason. The amount of moral injury that we can endure is not unlimited. Outrage is exhausting.


Conflicts between nations do little to diminish the underlying humanity of individual citizens. We see instances of extraordinary kindness and sacrifice under the most dire conditions. Unfortunately, the converse is also true: the underlying humanity of individual citizens does little to diminish conflicts between nations. If widespread intermarriage and extended family connections fail to dispel the menace of war, summer camps and youth orchestras for enemy children do not stand a chance. The well-intentioned are no match for the evil-inspired.

Optimism versus pessimism is not a choice. Our individual response to desperate times is a hostage of that confounding intersection of temperament and temperature. What is certain is that escape is impossible, retreat an illusion. As the old adage goes, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." It was Trotsky who is supposed to have said this. Whatever happened to him?


March 14, 2022
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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.